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Feb. 26, 2020

Oil flow beneath ice in the Great Lakes

A research team, led by Michigan State University faculty and a student, is continuing its cold-weather research to discover how to protect the Great Lakes from oil spills that could potentially take place during months when ice covers the waters.

This research is a continuation of the initial report titled “Line 5: Oil spill detection, remediation and risk perceptions in winter conditions” funded by the Michigan Applied Public Policy Research, or MAPPR, program of MSU’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research. Both binational and interdisciplinary in nature, the project uniquely brings together social scientists, engineers – and even a high school student – to study oil spills under ice with the goal of developing best policies and practices for remediation of under-ice oil spills.

Research faculty members that contribute to the project include Doug Bessette, assistant professor, and Robert Richardson, an ecological economist and professor, both in MSU’s Department of Community Sustainability as well as Volodymyr Tarabara, professor in the College of Engineering and a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MSU.

Also on the team are Grant Gunn, assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management, and Michelle Rutty, an assistant professor of sustainable tourism in the Department of Interdisciplinary Centre on Climate Change, both at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

MSU student Vincent Marinelli, an MSU Honors College student and environmental engineering major, is assisting with the research, as is an Okemos High School student. “Our work is very interdisciplinary,” said Tarabara.

The team’s research goal is two-fold – to probe the public’s opinion about oil spills during winter season and to understand how oil spreads under ice as it meets with the ice underbelly.

“We want to know, once the oil hits the ice undersides, what will happen, where will it spread and how will it spread,” said Tarabara. “Will the ice spread farther or closer to the ice? We want to know how and where the oil will go.”

The work involves social science that tapped public opinions through IPPSR’s State of the State Survey and hands-on science requiring a 185-gallon tank be filled with water and floating ice in MSU’s College of Engineering facilities. The transparent tank is then filled with water, topped with ice and then oil is pumped into the tank to simulate an oil spill. The experiment also requires another step of adding crushed ice to the tank of icy water to simulate water conditions during spring melting. An ice sculptor is creating custom-made slabs of ice that might form in different bodies of water – like ocean waters, water in the Great Lakes and in inland lakes.

“Our experimental variables include the oil release rate and the physical structure of the ice itself. We hypothesize that the shape of the oil plume as it exists under the ice – can be predicted based on structure of the ice-water interface and oil properties,” Tarabara said. “We are working with oil provided by Enbridge, a Canadian energy transportation company and owner of Line 5.”

Line 5 carries oil beneath the Straits of Mackinac, across the state to ports in North America, including Michigan and Sarnia, Ontario. Additional partners include the U.S. Coast Guard who have assisted ice measurement on the Great Lakes. The preliminary findings were presented this winter at the Water Management in Cold Climates” conference in Harbin, China. The final results will be ready this year.

Additionally, in collaboration with the Northern Michigan Area Committee, using the IPPSR SOSS results, they assessed both residents and policy-makers’ risk perceptions of oil spills under ice. Researchers presented their findings at the “Energy Research and Social Science,” or ERSS, Conference in Tempe, Arizona and at the Society for Risk Analysis Annual Meeting in Arlington, Virginia. The team also has an article near submission-ready for the journal ERSS.

This project facilitated collaboration with researchers from Lake Superior State University, culminating in a joint proposal to the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research to form a working group “Oil Spills under Ice – Challenges and Solutions.” The working group would bring together researchers from academia and national laboratories, remediation practitioners from the private sector, experts from U.S. Coast Guard and broader public representatives to continue the study of the most important waters at home in the Great Lakes states and beyond.

By: Cynthia Kyle

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